Familiar becomes new in Martin Rollins’ drawings

Ah … I have been transported by Martin Rollins’ large drawings to … where, exactly? I think that’s Baxter Avenue, and there’s Cherokee Park, but where are the people? The life?

Quiet stillness is a trademark of Rollins. No matter if it’s one of his famous local cityscapes or a pastoral scene, the view is undisturbed by gritty, real life. In his work, familiarity is not all that familiar.
Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is an influence. While both specialize in highlighting the overlooked, everyday urban world, Hopper’s paintings come off as chilly, lonely and foreboding. In contrast, Rollins’ work is inviting, largely because of his warm color palette and the richness of his preferred medium, oil pastels.

Working from a photograph of a Louisville street or landscape, Rollins transforms the scene with glowing light and multicolored shadow, reworking it so it loses some of its identity but heightening its charm. He’s not a photo-realist artist but one who wishes to provoke a mood. In the excellent monograph brochure by art historian Maggie Meloy, Rollins explains, “As I have continued to work, I am more and more intrigued by the idea of atmosphere and mood in an artwork, and how they can help create a palpable sense of place or being.”
My guess is you have traveled Baxter Avenue many times and never seen Rollins’ “Intersection.” Perhaps it needs to be felt more than seen. Twilight has molded the buildings into silhouettes. The streets are paved in rust streaks, with the golden sky putting a glow over the entire scene.  

“Far, Far from Me” and “Bird on a Wire” are drawings that complement each other through Rollins’ alternating use of rust and blue. The former features beautiful rust trees lining a street under lines of electric wires zigzagging across the dominant turquoise sky. He then reverses the color scheme on the latter, making a similar street scene more rust than blue.

“After the Rainbow” is a landscape so lush you wish to dive right into the green-blue water. Rollins’ makes the spots where land meets water a flurry of sparkling light and mysterious shadows, creating a place you can’t help but peer into.

 Rollins has thrown in a little bright yellow patch in the water and a touch of orange in the bushes among an explosion of green in his “Icarus” landscape. The colors are not arbitrary but represent the reflection on the water and the seasonal change.

“The Marsh Crone’s Brew” is a departure from his usual style. This less solid, sketchier technique let me envision Rollins as a mad scientist in his studio, whirling pink, blue and purple pastel sticks around. It might be a peek into things to come.

“‘The Marsh Crone’s Brew’ by Ib Spang Olsen was a children’s book from my own childhood, which was an illustrated recounting of an old Danish folk tale,” Rollins told me via e-mail. “The book told the story of the how the Marsh Crone concocted a special brew in the cool evenings of late summer. Just as beguiling as its story was its fascinating and somewhat gritty illustrations.

“In (my) drawing … I braided an impression of a large pond near the monastery at Gethsemani with that remembrance of the illustrations within the book. Something in the feel of the wild weeds, shrubs and trees around the pond called back to those images and that story of my childhood.”

B. Deemer Gallery is selling posters of two of the works in the show, “After the Rainbow” and “Far, Far from Me” for $15. They also curated a Martin Rollins’ mini-retrospective with a small group of older works. The 11 pieces date from 1995 and show just how far he has progressed as an artist. Apparently, his interest in cityscapes and landscapes developed early, but all it takes is a viewing of “Beach House Hallway II” from 1995 to note how much his color choices have changed over the years.

The outdoor furnishings and lifestyle store Digs also has a small exhibition of Rollins’ landscapes on view. Remember, spring is just around the corner.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

‘Martin Rollins: New Works’
Through Dec. 10
B. Deemer Gallery
2650 Frankfort Ave.

Through Jan. 4
731 Design Campus
731 E. Main St.